It was a devious beast of a problem.
My brewing had ground to a halt the previous afternoon after three days of dead ends, inert masses and over-reactions. In this case, theory and practice were not only not speaking to each other, they refused to even glance in each others direction. So, abandoning practice completely for the moment, I decided to try to bend theory to my will. The result was that, some twenty hours later, I was wading through discarded reactivity charts, ingredient substitutions and alchemical process diagrams. I was also getting nowhere. I rubbed my forehead and wished for a cup of coffee and one of those almond croissants from the bakery on the other side of the island. If there was any single key, it was eluding me. It was more likely anyway to be a number of unrelated factors… I relented and let my hand fall to the hot mug of coffee at my side and raised it for a sip. The second I tasted it I spit it out, shoving myself back violently from the table, my chair tottering to the floor behind me. Where the hell had that come from?
I had my wand out and my back against the wall. Some of the coffee had sloshed out and onto a small plate holding a pristine almond croissant. I cast protego in front of me. There was something on the other side of the table, not moving: two grayish tips directly across from me. "Step back to the door," I snarled, "now!"
The gray tips bobbed as their owner moved back with little bowing steps, gradually revealing a bald dome and enormous eyes. A bloody house elf! I dropped the protego – it wouldn't do me any good. When I could see down to its knobby knees beneath the hem of the souvenir Memories of Ireland tea towel it was wearing, I said "that's far enough." I was trying to keep my breath even. "What's in that coffee? Who sent you after me?"
"Milk, Master Headmaster, no sugar." I always hated their creaky hinge voices; this one was just as grating as the rest of them. It was also evading my questions.
"What ELSE is in it? Tell me everything that was put into that cup, by you or anyone else!" I knew house elves well enough, since I had been forced to work with them for over a year. They enjoyed playing dumb and squeaking by under the letter of the law, but they had a great deal of trouble with an outright lie. If one could phrase a question just right…
"Coffee, sir, and water and milk. I brew it properly, and no one else!" it declaimed with some tiny pride. I guessed it was male by the sound. I glanced at the pastry. I didn't really want an ingredient list, but I also didn't want its presence nagging at me. "Is there anything remotely harmful in that croissant?"
"Too much sugar is being bad for you sir, but sweet almonds do not contain enough hydrogen cyanide to be harmful. Master Headmaster, only bitter almonds contain amygdalin which will produce hydrogen cyanide in dangerous quantities. "
I narrowed my eyes.
"I don't need a herbology lesson from you," I said. "Tell me who sent you here and if anyone is with you."
"I come alone, sir. I was not sent, we all agree that Master Headmaster will help. He owes us and he know – "
"Owe you? Owe who? I owe no one! I'm done!"
"We all agree – you owe us."
"You've all agreed have you? Than no doubt you are all perfectly correct. May I ask who and what I could possibly owe?" The creature had a disturbingly confident air about him.
"All us elves of Hog-"
"That's enough! I owe no one from that place. Not another word – get out."
"You owe us."
"Get – " I began, but the thing interrupted - "we do you services!" with smug finality.
I stared at it for a moment. "You are bound to serve the headmaster and the school. There is no obligation between us for any service performed while I…" I trailed off. The little cloud of smugness hadn't dissipated a whit. I propped my chair back up and regained my seat. I gave the offending coffee mug a small shove away before I looked at the elf again. "What service, exactly, have you or any of your… colleagues performed that could possibly create an obligation on my part?"
It gave a bow, bits of the Giant's Causeway brushing the floor, before it began again. "You is no longer Headmaster, but we have done you services. We is not telling anyone that you is living, or your name, or where you are. That is services."
"No, that is blackmail."
"And the one you trusted with your life says you will know what to do, you will help us, because you owe us, and you can find out things." It all came out in a rush.
The one I trusted… I didn't particularly want to hear his name. I sighed. "And what exactly do I know how to find out?" Perhaps they had lost their precious treacle tart recipe. I felt a creeping resignation in the face of his stubborn squeaking. Perhaps he sensed it, for he came around the side of the table and spoke conspiratorially: "There is elves missing, sir. They is family to us."
"From … the school?"
"No sir, they is family to some at the school, but they was here, in Newworld. But we always know where they are, until now we don't know. No one knows." He drooped a bit.
"Undoubtedly someone does. You do realize that it is different here? House-elves are free to change their employment at will. They could easily have found some place which -" He was shaking his bulbous head mournfully.
"They is family – when they flit, they tells us. We always know. Now it's nothing! For three months the longest."
"What are they called, and where were they last?" I asked, flipping over one of the less crumpled charts.
"The longest gone, he is Wilia, who was in a kitchen called Starkeys in the town of Peoria in the country of Illinois - " There wasn't any point correcting him on the terminology, "for only two weeks gone the other, she is called Mayni, from Under City Importers, in Seattle City."
"Isn't that convenient?" I glanced down at my paper. The logical starting place was clear enough. "Well, why would they go?"
"Why would they go where, sir?"
"Anywhere, why would they go anywhere? Were they looking for some other place, did they want to move? Was there any falling out with their employers?"
He drew himself up in indignation. "They is proper, our family! We do not flit just for wants –" He was winding himself up so I cut him off.
"Proper or not, things are different here." He clearly hadn't grasped it the first time I said it. "I don't see how it serves you not to answer me. Did they express any discontent to you or anyone else at the school, did they have any plans?"
He shook his head with a sniff. "And I don't suppose you have anything else useful to tell me?" I didn't get a sniff that time. "All right, sod off then, I have work to do." I could already feel my resignation brewing into irritation, as it usually did. I didn't bother looking up as he bobbed backwards.
"You do the finding out, and then you tells us. Kob comes back in five days." He wasn't there when I looked up again, so he must have gone then. I surveyed the room around me; the wreckage of four wasted days plus one cold cup of coffee plus one soggy almond croissant.